The Dangers of Phthalates in Cosmetics

Overhead view of lipsticks
Peter Dazeley/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The non-profit Environmental Working Group launched the Not Too Pretty campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of phthalates, industrial chemicals that are used as solvents in many cosmetics. Most of the mainstream hair sprays, deodorants, nail polishes and perfumes that millions of people use every day contain these harmful chemicals. Phthalates are also employed as plastic softeners in many different consumer products, including children’s toys and medical devices.

Why are phthalates dangerous?

Shown to damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive systems in animal studies, phthalates can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled. Scientists at government agencies in both the U.S. and Canada agree that exposure to the chemicals could cause a wide range of health and reproductive problems in people. It has been very difficult, however, to determine the minimum level of exposure when these problems arise. For many of us, our exposure to phthalates may be low on any given day, but we absorb these small quantities of chemicals frequently, over decades. 

Manufacturers use phthalates because they cling to the skin and nails to give perfumes, hair gels and nail polishes more staying power. But a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that five percent of women between age 20 and 40 had up to 45 times more phthalates in their bodies than researchers initially hypothesized. CDC found phthalates in virtually every person tested, but the largest concentrations -- 20 times higher than the rest of the population -- were found in women of child-bearing age.

Another study, led by Dr. Shanna Swan of the University of Missouri, identified developmental abnormalities in male infants correlating to high phthalate levels in their mothers’ bodies. More studies associated phthalates breast cancer and with hormonal disruptions in young girls and women. Currently, potential links to obesity and metabolic issues are being investigated. 

Industry Group Denies Risk

Meanwhile, the industry-backed American Chemistry Council asserts, “There is no reliable evidence that any phthalate has ever caused a health problem for a human from its intended use.” The group accuses organizations of “cherry-picking” results “showing impacts on test animals to create unwarranted concern about these products.”

EWG spokesperson Lauren E. Sucher urges people—especially women who are pregnant, nursing or planning on becoming pregnant—to avoid phthalates. EWG maintains a free online database named "Skin Deep", which list lotions, creams, and polishes that contain phthalates. It also provides information on many other chemical compounds found in products beyond just cosmetics, including sunscreens, baby products, and toothpaste.

Banned in Europe, Not U.S. or Canada

A 2003 European Union directive bans phthalates in cosmetics sold in Europe, but U.S. and Canadian regulators have not been so proactive, despite mounting evidence of potential harm. Health advocates were temporarily relieved when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it would begin enforcing a 1975 law requiring labels on products with ingredients that haven't been safety tested. But such labels remain to be seen, even though 99 percent of cosmetics contain one or more untested ingredients.